Whitehall must get house in order on property

5 Aug 11
Bob Baber

It is welcome news that ministers are encouraging councils to identify the land and buildings that they own, but central government has some work to do in this area too

Communities Secretary Eric Pickles is calling on public bodies to publish a list of their property assets (as first reported in Public Finance in May). This follows from work with 11 pathfinder areas that have been testing a holistic approach to managing public property across local areas through place-based asset management.

It is founded on a persuasive body of evidence that savings can be made and better outcomes provided if public agencies collaborate to manage their property estates as a collective resource across local areas. This is in contrast to the prevailing approach where public sector property is managed separately by different agencies. Pickles suggests that better property management could save the public sector £35bn over ten years.

To collaborate on managing their assets, local public bodies need to know what each other own. Publishing their list of assets is a first step towards this. In addition, putting the information in the public domain also opens up the extent of land and property ownership owned by public bodies to public scrutiny and invites community engagement.

While this initiative is directed at local public service providers, central government should not forget to get its own house in order so that Whitehall departments collaborate on managing their assets between themselves and with local areas. They also need to link together the capital the various government departments allocate to local public bodies for public buildings.

If central government were more joined-up on this it would make it easier for local public bodies to collaborate locally on managing their assets to deliver savings and customer focused services.

Some public bodies, such as Northamptonshire County Council, already publish their asset register. However, this will be something new to many, although it should not be too onerous because public bodies are already required to keep a register of their assets for accounting purposes.

Public bodies are likely to hold back from publishing all the information on their asset register, such as property values because they may consider this to be commercially sensitive. Likewise, there will be properties that have to be kept off the list such as women’s refuges.

The government has also published its demonstrator map of public assets as an example of how it would like to see public bodies publish their property holdings. Again some already do this such as a group of public bodies in the West of England. In the case of Bristol City Council, it has gone further in mapping Third Sector assets that are used to deliver public services.

The government’s demonstrator map is a first step towards a national map of public assets. CIPFA and Ordnance Survey are putting their heads together to see if they can help make a national map of public assets a reality. If they do, it will fill the gap in our national understanding of the extent of public land and buildings and hopefully lead to better informed decisions by central government and local bodies about our national stock of public assets.

Bob Baber is a senior property consultant at CIPFA Property and a specialist adviser to the public sector on place-based asset management. He can be contacted at Bob.Baber@CIPFA.org.uk

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